My own Famous Five
Newsletter: May 2017
Dear web friends
Warm greetings again and you find me in some literary pain… but waste no time on sympathy.
I’ve been asked to choose the five favourite books I’ve written and, well… it’s difficult. It’s a little like choosing between your children, though not quite as gross a notion. This is not Schindler’s List.
And I don’t even believe in the best/favourite principle, really I don’t, because everything has its glory, its flaws and its moment. My five star book this year was a one star book last year.
But sometimes in life you have to stop dilly-dallying, cease from flighty speculation, ease yourself off the fence and just make a decision… and here’s mine.
The results are in and I’m unhappy already…
The Journey Home (formerly, The Beautiful Life, published by Bloomsbury)
I cried in the Lordship Lane rec (adjoining the infamous Broadwater Farm estate) when told Bloomsbury were going to publish this book. It hadn’t been easy leaving the Church of England and this was a re-launch of my soul, post institutional religion, written while working in a supermarket (well, when I got home – you can’t write on the till).
It was soul-scouring but enjoyable to ponder deep truth in the form of ten new commandments. Long percolating inside me, this was my ‘good news’ for the world… starting, as always, with myself. The book proved quite a door-opener, spawning, amongst other things, an annual retreat that has run for the past 10 years. It’s the book people most often tell me they keep by their bed.
Pippa’s Progress: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Heaven (published by DLT)
The idea was conceived in a pub on the Holloway Road, in London. The original Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic – but now a largely unread classic. I wished to keep Bunyan’s brilliant idea of a journey, but ease it into the 21st century where the journey – and the language of the journey – feels different. Here we can enjoy satire, mindfulness, sadness, beauty, deep horror and even deeper joy. So just a normal day, really… a normal day in the journey to heaven. My son Harry provides the excellent illustrations and it is the only one of my books (so far!) to be turned into a play.
Solitude, Recovering the Power of Alone (published by White Crow)
This was written in the studio flat where I lived for a number of years above a noisy pub in Tottenham. (I’m still working at the supermarket at this point, for the biographers among you.) The book was started and finished in a three months, which included the August riots and looting in the summer of 2011.
It started as a prose piece, but felt dead; and so I turned it into a dialogue and that felt better. I mainly include it here because I keep meeting people who love it. It’s a long way from being a bestseller, but seems to ring bells as people ponder life, love and the difference between loneliness and solitude. It’s about learning to be happy in our own undistracted company. The dialogue format, introduced as an afterthought, seems to work.
An Abbot Peter Mystery (published by DLT/Marylebone House)
I’m cheating here, because I don’t know which one to choose. I’d always wanted to write murder mysteries, having long loved the genre. The best murder mysteries are a contemplation on life, a precise beholding of darkness and light, and the first in the series, A Vicar, Crucified, certainly starts darkly (the vestry is a mess).
I like to establish character through dialogue and I enjoy Abbot Peter’s company and his relationship with Detective Inspector Tamsin Shah. Unfortunately, I tend to like my murderers and always wish it was someone else, a character I like less. But that’s out of my control. I gather the characters together at the beginning of the book and see what happens… really. The fifth in the series, The Indecent Death of a Madam, is out in September 2017. Here are the others, if you scroll down. How many have you read?
The Soldier, the Gaoler, the Spy and Her Lover (published by Marylebone House)
I just couldn’t believe no one had told this story. The last 18 months in the life of King Charles I are scintillating drama. Whether I have done the story justice, I can’t say, but it is the well-known story that no one knows. The divisions and unknowing in the country in 1647 remind me of post-Brexit Britain. There’s the same question: what (the fuck) happens now? No one knows, and a remarkable story unfolds. It ends on a scaffold in Whitehall, but the journey there has more twists and turns than a goblin’s corkscrew.
I focus on four real-life characters, including Cromwell, Charles I and his spy mistress and lover, Jane Whorwood. You couldn’t make it up, and so – unlike the Abbot Peter series – I didn’t.
And now the arguments begin. My partner is asking (with some force) why my ‘laugh out loud’ supermarket diary Shelf Life isn’t there? And the answer is, I’m only allowed five. I’m also sad I couldn’t get my Conversations with Meister Eckhart in.
This is the trouble with being a decision-maker… ruling things in, means ruling things out. And absolutely no one is happy with the outcome…
Away from the tired machinations of the literary salon, I wish you a merry month of May, whatever it holds. Let the Morris dancing begin!